Pentagon: US-Iran Warboat Encounter Could Be Fake

The list of those who are less than fully confident in the Pentagon’s video/audio mashup of aggressive maneuvers by Iranian boats near American warships in the Strait of Hormuz now includes the Pentagon itself.

Unnamed Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that the threatening voice heard in the audio clip, which was released on Monday night with a disclaimer that it was recorded separately from the video images and merged with them later, is not directly traceable to the Iranian military.

That undercuts one of the most menacing elements from the Pentagon’s assertion that Iranian forces threatened the Navy ships: The voice on the radio saying, “I am coming to you. … You will explode after … minutes.”

Here’s an excerpt from an article in this morning’s New York Times on the Pentagon’s assessment of the audio:

The audio includes a heavily accented voice warning in English that the Navy warships would explode. However, the recording carries no ambient noise — the sounds of a motor, the sea or wind — that would be expected if the broadcast had been made from one of the five small boats that sped around the three-ship American convoy.

Pentagon officials said they could not rule out that the broadcast might have come from shore, or from another ship nearby, although it might have come from one of the five fast boats with a high-quality radio system.

Update, 3:36 p.m. ABC News just reported more details from the spokesperson for the U.S. admiral in charge of the Fifth Fleet, who confirmed the above and explained why they concluded that the threat came from the Iranian boats:

“It happened in the middle of all the very unusual activity, so as we assess the information and situation, we still put it in the total aggregate of what happened Sunday morning. I guess we’re not saying that it absolutely came from the boats, but we’re not saying it absolutely didn’t.”

***

Update, 5:48 p.m. At a news conference this afternoon, a reporter asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates about his level of “confidence in the U.S. military version” of the incident. He was unequivocal:

I have no question whatsoever about the report on this incident from the captains of the ships and also from the video itself.

***

Earlier on Wednesday, a reader posted a comment on The Lede claiming to be a former Navy officer with experience in the Strait of Hormuz and offering an explanation for how easily a mistake could have been made by Navy personnel trying to sift through radio transmissions filled with chatter:

All ships at sea use a common UHF frequency, Channel 16, also known as “bridge-to bridge” radio. Over here, near the U.S., and throughout the Mediterranean, Ch. 16 is used pretty professionally, i.e., chatter is limited to shiphandling issues, identifying yourself, telling other ships what your intentions are to avoid mishaps, etc.

But over in the Gulf, Ch. 16 is like a bad CB radio. Everybody and their brother is on it; chattering away; hurling racial slurs, usually involving Filipinos (lots of Filipinos work in the area); curses involving your mother; 1970’s music broadcast in the wee hours (nothing odder than hearing The Carpenters 50 miles off the coast of Iran at 4 a.m.)

On Ch. 16, esp. in that section of the Gulf, slurs/threats/chatter/etc. is commonplace. So my first thought was that the “explode” comment might not have even come from one of the Iranian craft, but some loser monitoring the events at a shore facility.

The commenter, who signed his posting “SWO officer,” went on to say, “I hope everybody exercises great caution here and doesn’t jump to conclusions.”

President Bush was criticized today for doing the opposite. According to The Washington Post, “some diplomatic and military officials in Washington” said that Mr. Bush’s statements on arriving in Israel Wednesday “inflated the significance of the brief incident” in the strait.

In his remarks, Mr. Bush warned Iran that “all options are on the table to protect our assets.”

Meanwhile, the video images that were released by the Pentagon came in for some more contradiction from Iran, which has contended that the United States was exaggerating a workaday encounter between two naval powers in the Persian Gulf: A competing video purporting to show Sunday’s incident from the Iranian side was broadcast today on Iranian television.

Here is how the semiofficial Fars News Agency described it:

The four-minute video showed an Iranian commander in a speedboat contacting an American sailor via radio, asking him to identify the U.S. vessels and state their purpose.

“Coalition warship number 73 this is an Iranian patrol,” the Iranian commander is heard to say in good English.

“This is coalition warship number 73. I am operating in international waters,” comes the reply.

That would seem to be a much less aggressive interaction between the American and Iranian forces, of course. But the timing of the recording could not be confirmed, and as Iran itself has said, these types of exchanges happen all the time.

Agence France-Presse noted one way that Iran’s video seemed to match up with the United States account of the encounter: all three U.S. vessels involved in the incident are seen in the video.

But The Associated Press was skeptical, saying that “the short clip likely did not show Sunday’s entire encounter.”

Update, 11:37 a.m. The Iranian video is now online.

A reader using the name Hamid Pasha sent The Lede a link to an English-language Iranian web site, PressTV.com, that has posted the Iranian video.

The clip is a bit over 5 minutes long. The first few minutes are views of coalition warships shot from smaller boats (if you thought the motorboats seemed to be moving fast in the American video, wait until you see the bow waves on the warships). In the latter portion, we see an Iranian on the boat using a microphone handset to hail “coalition warship 73″ by radio, in fairly clear but accented English, and we hear responses in an American voice.

The video clearly covers only part of an encounter — perhaps the encounter, though there’s no obvious way a layman would be able to know — and it cuts off abruptly after the American voice is heard answering several inquiries from the Iranian by saying simply that the coalition ship is operating in international waters. We don’t see or hear what happened next.

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